The Northstar Framework: a guide for smarter communications decisions

You’re standing at the crossroads, utterly bamboozled. Out of all the directions you could take with your comms and marketing, which one should you take? Coming up with ideas isn’t usually the problem. With an hour or two’s brainstorming, anyone can come up with ideas. But are they the right ideas? Which ones are blazing hot and which are lukewarm? How do you get from a whole world of options to making decisions on the ground about what to do next?

We need a more intelligent way forward. I’ve spent years working with organisations overwhelmed with options. If you ever grapple with making decisions for your comms, the Northstar Framework is designed for you.

1. What is the Northstar Framework?

The Northstar Framework helps you prioritise comms tactics based on what’s most likely to work now — and what will be sustainable into the future. The best comms tactics will meet all four of the following criteria:

  1. Business need: does this reflect our organisation’s strategic purpose and business requirements?
  2. User need: does this create value by meeting someone’s need?
  3. Unique value: is this something that our organisation is uniquely placed to provide through our position in the landscape and our capabilities?
  4. Resourced: does our organisation have the resources to create and maintain this content?

Northstar Framework

Let’s tease out each of these criteria.

Business need

A business need is an outcome your organisation has to achieve. This could be a:

  • Strategic requirement: your reason for existing, or the direction your organisation is taking  
  • Operational requirement: something your organisations needs to function well. 
  • Communications and marketing requirement: something you need people outside the organisation to know, feel or do. 
  • Compliance requirement: what an external authority, such as legislation says you must do. 

User need

You could also call this ‘audience need’, or ‘customer need’. Whatever makes sense to you, as long as:

  1. the need is one that an actual human feels
  2. you make this decision based on evidence.  

This need could be a:

  • Basic need: a fundamental human need, such as comfort, security or emotional connection
  • Task need: a thing that people want to get done. That could be ‘get a quote to unblock my sink’ or ‘apply for housing support.’

Spoiler: people don’t need your content — they need the thing that your content helps them to do. It’s so easy to assume that because we made content, and we’re invested in it, other people will care too. We fall in love with our idea. That’s why we need a dose of evidence to test if those assumptions hold true.

Unique value

What are you uniquely placed to offer? Your unique value may come from:

  • Authority: what you are seen as the expert about, or the trusted source of information on
  • Exclusiveness: something that people literally can’t get anywhere else. 
  • Innovation: you’re the first person to do this. 
  • Perspective: the information isn’t unique, but the way you talk about it and your tone is truly distinctive.

Resourced

This is the ‘how’ question. Do you  have everything you need to create and maintain this content? Resourcing includes:

  • Staff availability: people on the ground with the time to do the work
  • Skill sets: people with the skills to do the work
  • Systems: workflow, infrastructure and channels
  • Budget: where you want to outsource information

If communications or marketing tactics meet all four criteria — that’s your Northstar.  

2. How do you use the Northstar Framework?

We use the Framework in two scenarios:

  1. Evaluating what’s already there: out of all the current tactics and current communications pieces, what’s worth continuing?
  2. Generating a new strategy: looking to the future, out of all the ideas for what we could do next, what should we focus on?

The Northstar Framework won’t help you generate ideas. There are plenty of tools already out there to help there, from full marketing strategy frameworks to brainstorming with Post-Its on a wall. The Northstar Framework helps with what comes next: prioritising ideas.

Once you’ve mapped ideas to the Framework, things fall into place. Anything that aligns to the Northstar is your main priority. And for everything else, what you do depends on where it falls on the framework:

  1. Eliminate: stop doing this work altogether. Let’s lock this idea in a dark cupboard and never speak of it again. 
  2. Relegate: make this work less of a priority, either in your workplan, or in how and when it’s presenter to users.  If you must have your Twitter feed on your website somewhere, does it really need to be front and centre on the homepage?
  3. Curate: find other organisations that are creating content about this same topic and share it with your audience. 
  4. Hibernate: come back to this work when resources are available. Or when everyone has had a good lie down.

To see the Northstar Framework in action, here’s a case study from Study Canberra, the ACT Government organisation responsible for attracting students to Canberra.

3. What do you think?

Feedback from clients on this model has been amazing. People have told me that the Northstar Framework is transforming the way they think about their communications and marketing. It’s giving them focus and direction.

We ran a Northstar workshop for one client who told us, ‘As soon as I saw this, I knew the value it’d have for our team.’

With this framework, you can make communications decisions faster, and with more confidence. You can zero in on those ideas that will make the biggest difference.

4. Need help?

Right now, I’m running 1 hour consult calls to work through the Northstar Framework.  We’ll capture your ideas (or what you’re doing at the moment), map them to the framework, and come up with a list of priorities.

Get in touch if you’d like to know more.

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